Situated behind the Woodmill Lifestyle Centre in Stellenbosch, the Stellenbosch Triennale’s Curator’s Exhibition felt like travelling into a completely new space. The Alice-in-Wonderland-like discovery of finding the exhibition down the long gravel driveway past the busy coffee culture and shops was quite a juxtaposition. I was led into an entirely new area populated with large-scale art installations, fabrics sweeping from the ceiling and smaller sets that invited viewers to interact with the art. The theme Tomorrow there will be more of us was interpreted by over 20 artists, but this review will focus particularly on Hellen Nabukenya’s work, the stunning piece of collaged textiles that greets you as you enter the exhibition.
Nabukenya’s piece titled Abalamu Baseesa Gwaka grandly introduces itself through the use of brightly coloured fabrics ranging from African wax prints to animal patterns and even, surprisingly, features some Angry Birds. The colours are full of life and catch your eye wherever you walk around the exhibition space. It can almost always be seen from some angle, whether that’s because of its bright contrast against the white walls, the intensity of its colour or because of its sheer size hanging from the ceiling within the venue.
Nabukenya sews social narratives together with the help of a team of local women from her community in Kampala. Her early fascination and love of fashion and textiles was a result of sewing activities she engaged in with her mother as a child. One of the narratives I noticed whilst viewing this piece was the interesting collection of different fabrics that were sewn together. Whilst each piece was quite unique, I couldn’t help but notice how well this almost random collection of fabrics seems to work together in harmony. The colours seemed to feed into one another creating this patch-worked collage of fabrics flowing from the warmer, translucent reds, oranges and bright pinks to the darker and more solid fabrics. The way this was positioned also allowed for the collection of thinner fabrics to shine – literally, since they were placed closest to the entrance allowing the sun to shine through the fabric, setting the piece alight. This collection of fabrics is supposed to reflect the current fashion trends of Uganda, but something I was very curious about was the inclusion of some fabrics, namely the Angry Birds fabric, which seemed a little strange. That is until I found out about how countries like the United States are exporting their second-hand clothing and textiles to African countries like Uganda..
This gave rise to a new way in which I started to read the work. I started to think about how some of the textiles were possibly unwanted off-cuts that were brought in from all these different places across the world. About how these pieces, which seemed almost useless previously, were all sewn together to create this massive installation which is now seen as something beautiful. I think this is a really powerful narrative about how unwanted textile pieces can be beautiful too.
I also loved how this piece interacted with the other fabric installations near it. When viewed in relation to its exhibition space neighbor, http: 404 Not Found by Amien Zyma, which is an installation of 404 elongated workers overalls referencing the rising job losses in the global market. It creates this interesting conversation surrounding the current struggles within the job market and specifically jobs in the textile industry where big companies produce mass clothing. It contracts with how Nabukenya involves her assistants in the process of artmaking whilst there are people also working with textiles for a living but in much harsher environments with almost no freedom. The colour of Nabukenya’s story contrasts with the ghostly white elongated overalls hung nearby.
The collective dialogue created within the space allows for those who engage with it to encounter new narratives they might have not have heard before. I think by empowering and educating viewers with new information through impactful pieces, that visual communication is an incredibly powerful tool in creating the ideas and thoughts that fuel the thinkers, creators and citizens of tomorrow. As the theme suggests ‘Tomorrow there will be more of us’ and armed with information I’m sure there will be.